Columnist Margaret Bullitt-Jonas: Harvey reinforces urgency of climate-change crisis

  • Fredi Ochoa removes wood from a home damaged by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Saturday in Houston.  AP PHOTO

  • Flooded cars sit alongside a road in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in Port Arthur, Texas, on Saturday. AP PHOTO

  • Michael Brown walks outside his flooded home, as he searches for belongings, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey, in Port Arthur, Texas, on Saturday.  AP PHOTO

  • Customs and Border Patrol boats look through a neighborhood which was flooded when the Barker Reservoir reached capacity in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Saturday in Katy, Texas. AP PHOTO

  • Joshua Miller, 12, helps remove carpet damaged by floodwaters inside his father's church, Messiah Mission Fellowship, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Saturday in Houston.  AP PHOTO

  • Workers pick up debris in a staircase of a four-story hotel exposed when the wall fell during Hurricane Harvey on Saturday in Rockport, Texas. AP PHOTO

Published: 9/5/2017 7:43:06 PM

Like many Americans, I have been gripped by news of the disaster as it unfolded along our nation’s Gulf Coast.

As torrential rains bore down on Texas and Louisiana and the floods swelled, people struggled to survive and to rescue family members, neighbors, and pets. Stories of tragedy and terror, courage and loss unfolded: trapped in his car, an elderly man was rescued from rising waters by a human chain; swept away in the flood, a mother, carrying her toddler on her back, was found dead, floating face down, and the 3-year-old girl, still clinging to her mother, was pulled to safety.

Stories like these pull us into prayer — grief for those who perished, anguish for those in harm’s way, gratitude for the people saving everyone they can, and a rising tide of anger and resolve. We will not stand idly by as people drown and are dislocated in extreme storms like these.

Part of a faithful response is concrete and immediate: if we live nearby and have a boat or clothes to spare, we can offer what we have. Wherever we live, if we have money to spare, we can donate to a disaster relief organization, including faith-rooted groups such as Episcopal Relief and Development and Church World Service.

Another part of a faithful response is to take a good, long look at what led to this catastrophe. Did climate change intensify the storm? The answer, say leading climate scientists, is yes.

Oceans absorb some of the excess heat trapped in the air by burning fossil fuels. Unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico fed the tropical storm, which took only about 48 hours to intensify from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane. What might have been a run-of-the-mill hurricane turned into a monster storm.

As Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, tells The Atlantic, “It may have been a strong storm, and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway—but (human-caused climate change) amplifies the damage considerably.”

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University likewise confirms the connections between climate change and Harvey’s destructive power. He writes, “It’s a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly.” And while climate change did not “cause” Harvey, “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”

Author and social activist Naomi Klein agrees that Harvey “didn’t come out the blue” — it was just the kind of extreme weather event that climate scientists have long been predicting. Surely now is the time, she argues, to have a serious policy debate in this country about what kind of energy we should rely on, and what kind of safety net we must provide for the poor, the ill, and the elderly, given their vulnerability in times of disaster and given the certainty that storms like Harvey are only a harbinger of the climate-related storms that lie ahead.

Journalist Wen Stephenson is also attuned to the links between climate change and social justice. In an article with the bold headline, “Houston’s Human Catastrophe Started Long Before the Storm,” he writes: “Our unfolding climate catastrophe … is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless … Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement — to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence — mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended.”

Climate change has never been only about polar bears. Stabilizing the climate is about social, racial, and economic justice, too — about treating Earth and each other with reverence and respect. How many more floods need to drown or displace our citizens and destroy our homes before we wake up to the climate crisis and take urgent steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground? How many more vulnerable communities are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and keep enriching fossil-fuel industry billionaires?

Meanwhile, as Harvey brings devastation to our Gulf Coast, a record-breaking strong monsoon season in Southeast Asia has caused over 1,200 deaths this summer. Because of Harvey, more Americans are aware of the suffering caused by floods exacerbated by climate change.

Perhaps now we can look with greater empathy at similar images coming from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh — images of other mothers wading through flooded areas, carrying their children in their arms; images of other homes destroyed and other communities cut off, with no food and clean water for days.

Perhaps now, after seeing what Harvey is doing to Houston, we can look ahead and grasp more clearly — more viscerally — what it means when scientists predict that sea-level rise will flood hundreds of American cities in the near future.

A new report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that by the end of the century, chronic flooding — defined as flooding so unmanageable that it drives people to move away — “will be occurring from Maine to Texas and along parts of the West Coast. It will affect as many as 670 coastal communities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida; and four of the five boroughs of New York City.”

Cambridge, Massachusetts? I was born and grew up there. By the end of the century? I do the arithmetic, figuring the ages of my children and grandchildren. I imagine the social chaos, the streams of refugees, the abandoned buildings.

Will we look back on Harvey (and Katrina and Sandy) as the first in a relentless wave of storms that eventually brought down many of America’s great cities?

Or will we look back on Harvey as the storm that finally got the attention of the American public and showed us the urgent need to take action on climate?

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, of Northampton, is Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ. This column is based on a blog post on her website,

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